Living Well is the Best Redemption

Over the past nine months, pandemic-induced isolation has forced me to get more comfortable than ever with my own company. To that end, I’ve been turning more and more to the Harry Potter series, my “problematic fave,” the one piece of pop culture that has shaped who I am more than any other.

Despite their many flaws, the Harry Potter books give my soul a safe place to rest. Reading them is like going home in the purest way, even when war and violence consume the narrative. If you’re an ardent fan, you’ll know what I mean. There’s just something about HP.

During this rereading, the most recent of at least a dozen, something stopped me dead in my tracks: The systematic abuse of Neville Longbottom, an anxious, downtrodden student whose brilliance remains hidden for most of the series because he is discouraged from gaining confidence. I’m not in the habit of armchair diagnosis, and I won’t try to guess whether Neville was disabled, but I do know that his anxiety and slower processing of educational materials were rarely addressed in a meaningful way. He was either ignored or berated for his struggles, so much so that a villain posing as a kindly teacher was able to manipulate him with sickening ease by being minimally supportive toward him.

The closer I looked, the more I found to relate to in Neville’s experiences at school. As a blind person who sometimes had trouble processing information in the same way my classmates did, I am familiar with the deep shame of feeling stupid, incompetent, behind. Helpful Hermiones have leaned over to whisper in my ear, less because they were altruistic than because it was painful to watch me flounder. I was a decent student in most respects, which gave me a leg up Neville didn’t have. Even so, the highly visual way most subjects were taught did a number on my confidence. So did the undiagnosed mental health condition and chronic pain issue that I didn’t have the language to describe at the time, guaranteeing I’d go without help for both.

To be crystal clear, I’ve never experienced abuse on par with what Neville endures from Severus Snape, the teacher who bullied him with astonishing regularity. No one was going around poisoning my pets. But I have dissolved in shame as grownups in charge of my educational development belittled me, because they mistook my anxiety for laziness, felt overwhelmed by their inexperience with my need for accommodations, or lacked the patience to wait around while the clumsy blind kid tried to keep up. When I shut down completely in sheer self-defence, their diagnosis of ‘lazy, passive kid’ was confirmed.

Most of my educational experiences were positive, so that I eventually developed the confidence we see Neville embody in his later years. I think most who knew me as a student will be shocked to hear that there was anything negative going on, surrounded as I was by Sprouts and Lupins who liked and respected me. With encouragement and support from dozens of adults, I transformed from a shy, passive mouse into a slightly-less-shy, proactive professional who is always up for beheading snakes and fighting evil. (By snakes, I mean writer’s block. By evil, I mean people who refuse to embrace plain language. Tomato, tomahto.)

So, no, there was nothing Dickensian, or even particularly Harry Potter-esque about my school days. Yet, I can’t help relating to Snape’s victims. as I read about Neville’s toad being tortured, occlumency lessons that involve insults and shouting, Hermione’s appearance and personality being mocked by a teacher entrusted with the education of young children, I wonder at the ease with which many Harry Potter fans have eagerly welcomed his redemptive narrative arc. Somehow, the man so abusive that he scared Neville more than anything in the world—and this is a kid from a sometimes-abusive family whose parents were tortured beyond imagining—becomes a sympathetic, even romantic figure.

It’s easy enough, I suppose, especially if you’ve never known what it’s like to be bullied by an educator. Being mistreated by your peers is one thing. Disabled kids practically expect that. Being targeted by an authority figure is wildly different. I’d wager plenty of Harry Potter fans have never been called babyish, stupid or ‘unlikely to amount to much’ by people who are meant to guide and encourage them. Assuming you’ve never been alone behind a closed door with someone who terrified you because they had the power to make your school life unbearable, who refused to accept you were genuinely doing your best with what you had, then it might be simple enough for you to dismiss Snape’s behaviour as entertaining, or at least excusable. The man was a hero, right? He probably hated teaching, anyway. He couldn’t be expected to suffer fools like Neville.

Plenty of HP fans have experienced exactly that, though, and maybe that’s why these books have always struck a chord with the lonely and marginalized, with kids who felt small and Neville-like. Lots of us had our Snape growing up. Lots of us dreamed of a Dumbledore who would swoop in and put a stop to the injustice. Lots of us clung to these books because they told a better story than the one we were living. These books promised us that one day, we’d be rescued, or become powerful enough to rescue ourselves.

But these very same books largely failed to recognize the trauma inflicted by heroic, “bravest man I knew” Snape. Harry names his child after a man who delighted in making children miserable, and everyone seems fine with that, I guess? How has this never bothered me as much as it does right now? Where have I been?

Since I’m an insufferable optimist these days, I decided I had to move beyond this new understanding to something I could use. So I thought about who Neville becomes at the end of the series, the way he takes the good, does his best to drown out the bullying, and builds a full, compassionate, heroic life. As an adult, he is a respected educator, one who, I feel certain, actively seeks out the lonely and marginalized to show them their hidden potential. In a way, he redeems what was done to him, not through punishment or revenge, but through a life well and graciously lived.

In a less impressive, unconscious way, I have done the same. I have taken the good, tried to drown out the bad, and grown into a fairly capable adult who does what she can to help those around her. And I’ve done a ton of work to understand those who harmed me, because forgiveness is so much easier, at the end of the day, than resentment.

Redemption is neither cheap nor easy. I still wake trembling from occasional nightmares. I still sometimes fall into shame spirals that have their roots in childhood school experiences. There are moments when I wander into a maze of contradictory what-ifs: What if I’d been smarter, or worked harder, or stayed even quieter, or been less frustrating, or cried less, or spoken out more, or tried to explain, or gotten that mental health diagnosis sooner, or been a better blind person, or, or, or…

Self-blame is seductive, because it gives me the pleasant illusion that I had control over powerful grownups, even though that’s a ridiculous notion. Telling myself a soothing story in which I could have been treated better if I’d just tried a little harder is comforting in the moment. Still, I know that the best way to redeem this narrative arc is to live well in the present, to seek out the marginalized and reveal the potential they don’t know they have because they’re too busy holding back tears or trying hard to please the people who bully them. I can pour enough good into their lives to balance things out, at least a little. And a little can go a long way. It did for me.

Like Snape, the tiny minority of educational professionals who mistreated me as a kid have redemptive arcs of their own, perhaps as compelling and surprising as his. Unlike Snape, they usually had more understandable reasons for how they behaved. They did what they did out of frustration, bitterness, ignorance, even what they must have imagined to be tough love. Some were so invested in my success they inadvertently pushed me hard in the opposite direction. Driven by determination, by fear, by overwork and stress, they caused a kid who loved learning to dread school and mistrust her own worth. None of it is okay. All of it is redeemable.

If I choose to, I can play a small part in that redemption, by living well and replacing old, trauma-soaked patterns with positive ones. I can’t decapitate my trauma with a big shiny blade, but this cycle of hurt people hurting people is an evil I can fight, a dark lord I can vanquish because I’m a grownup now. I have a voice now. I can make changes now. I am not a child, and I am not trapped. I am more free, more courageous than that grade-school mouse could have dreamed.

There will be no final atonement, no reckoning. No one is likely to crawl out of the woodwork and say, “Meagan, I apologize for X Y and Z. I’m sorry I stood by and let this happen. I’m sorry I didn’t encourage you. I’m sorry I let my frustration and fear turn to judgment and shame. I’m sorry I mocked you for crying instead of sitting with you in your pain. I’m sorry I was so often the source of that pain.”

Knowing this, I am no longer bitter, or angry, or afraid. I am no longer waiting for an apology. I am no longer wishing for a Dumbledore to appear and see justice done. I am holding the humanity and well-meaning efforts of those who have damaged me in tension with the knowledge that their actions were not my fault, in no way deserved. I am impossibly full of hope.

Hope is not a sword, but it’s enough.

Skills, Skills, Skills

For most people, skills are associated with employment, sports, and the arts. Unless we’re talking about early childhood development, few people think of cutting a steak or crossing a street as a “skill.” The era of lifehacks and “you’ve been doing these basic things wrong your whole life” articles is slowly changing that, but for the most part, nondisabled people don’t waste much time fretting over life skills. Surely such a term is too lofty for the everyday minutiae of life? Being highly-skilled implies specialization and, if you’re lucky, acclaim.

In the disabled world, the landscape can look quite different, in the realms of socialization and daily living. My writing and editing skills win me a fair bit of respect, for example, but what nondisabled people don’t realize is that I find travelling infinitely more demanding than writing, and spend almost as much time agonizing over the way I navigate my city as I do about the key messages I write every day.

Why do I spend so much time worrying? It’s not about safety or quality of life, so much: I know enough to function, and I’m getting better at asking for help. No, the bulk of the anxiety comes from the blind community’s obsession with skills. I call it “skillification,” where every minute task a blind person struggles with turns into a conversation about skills and methods and philosophies. A simple thread about knife technique can morph into a bloody civil war, as people scramble over each other to be heard, especially online. This commenter thinks there’s only one right way to use a knife. That one believes disabled people shouldn’t use knives—do you know how dangerous knives can be? A third thinks people should just do whatever comes naturally, and damn the textbook approaches. Another admits that he just gets his mom to do it. Someone else is squalling because blind people are so pathetic these days. At one point, somebody will probably mention American training centres, prompting someone else to start grousing about the NFB or the ACB or the IDB–insert alphabet soup here. Meanwhile, the unwitting author of this conflict just wants some tips on chopping the freakin’ onion.

Whenever I watch this play out, I always think the same thing to myself: “You had one job, blind community. Your job was to answer this person’s question as best you could, and you turned the whole topic into a judgmental philosophy discussion. You blew it. Well done.”

Don’t get me wrong; skills training is just about essential for any blind person who wants to live a reasonably independent life. In some senses at least, I wish I’d had more specialized education growing up, and I wish the focus of what I did receive had been more practical. But when complete strangers feel comfortable critiquing not only my methods but also my self-respect, the whole thing starts to feel a tiny bit absurd.

If you seek them out, you’ll find highly-trained professionals who will teach blind people the “proper” way to plug in a kettle or slice a banana. Books have been written about how to help blind people dress and groom themselves. I vividly remember a pamphlet my parents were given that featured a multi-step process for pouring milk. (Yes, it was that specific.) These resources can be handy, and I certainly appreciate experts who give on-the-ground advice, but the degree of dogma surrounding the precise methods people use to perform the most basic tasks is unnerving.

I believe all blind people should have access to skills training, and the freedom to explore alternatives. For people experiencing vision loss, relearning just about everything they already know how to do is a huge challenge, and they deserve to have help along the way. There is nothing wrong with excelling at “blinding,” as I like to call it, and skills gaps in areas like travel and etiquette can take a massive toll on quality of life.

I do, however, believe it may be time for the community to re-examine the way it perpetuates “skillification,” and how it can cause unnecessary shame and stress for people who are beginning to lose their vision, or who have never received much assistance in childhood. Generally speaking, the “official” ways in which blindness skills are taught vary widely, and there’s a lot to be said for finding what works for you and sticking to it. There’s also a lot to be said for being less willing to compare blind people to each other without accounting for the many other factors that influence a person’s adulting skills. I know plenty of sighted people who can barely use a microwave, but no one is sending them to a training centre.

In short, friends, do your thing, and do it in the way that makes the most sense for you. Do it safely, and do it well if it’s something that means a lot to you. Help others improve, if that’s what they want. Consider the skills that will help you attain your goals, and find ways to cultivate them. (Want to be invited to those business lunches? Better polish those table manners.) Before deciding something isn’t worth learning, understand the consequences of going without that skillset.

But if you have no interest in proper technique for serving five-course meals? If your preferred method for cracking eggs differs from the one your blind friend uses? If you never received official independent living skills instruction on how to bake a cake, but your cakes are no less delicious for it?

Well, then, don’t let the squabbling hordes get you down. You’re probably doing just fine.

“A” is for Advocacy

I’m not a parent, but the internet has exposed me to the struggles, joys, and everyday dilemmas of parenting in this ever-connected, ever-judgmental world. I read discussions about how to teach kids to interact more gracefully on the playground; how to remove bread from a hot toaster; how to play traditionally-inaccessible board games; how to shave sensitive areas of the developing body. Each time I see one of these, my heart soars. My parents had to raise me with sporadic, impersonal support, while parents who knew nothing of disability looked on with varying degrees of disapproval. They made it work, but there are many gaps in my basic skillset that might have been filled by an online community of disabled people who were willing to share their wisdom. If Disability Wisdom or VI Talk had been around when I was growing up, I might not be so wary of toasters.

The one skill that seems underrated, particularly in rural settings, is advocacy. Several of my teachers, visual consultants, and special education coordinators were adamant that I master an array of miscellaneous skills, like cutting paper with scissors, drawing the human form (with what little vision I had), and writing a legible signature. My childhood involved hours spent cutting a piece of blank paper into a series of meaningless rectangles that were destined for the recycle bin. I practiced my signature each day in a special book, trying vainly to copy the raised signature on the front cover, and wondering why sighted people were allowed to have illegible scrawls while I had to achieve perfection. (These days, my signature is defiantly unreadable.) I connected dots on graph paper. I completed strange worksheets with tactile circles, using a different colour for each one. These exercises ensured that I’d always be comfortable with scissors, and have a rudimentary idea of how to draw a human face, but they didn’t teach me how to stand up for myself, or ask for accommodations, or interpret my rights as a disabled person. Every now and then, someone would mention that I must always be my own advocate, but the concept was never expanded upon, and far more attention was paid to how I held a pencil—a pencil I’d seldom use, since I couldn’t handwrite—than how well I understood what being a disabled adult might be like.

Steeped as I was in traditional Catholic culture, I was an obedient student rather than a respectful one. Fear and anxiety were far more influential than respect or interest, and while I enjoyed school and hungered for knowledge, my primary and secondary education rarely encouraged me to grow into anything more than an unquestioning rule-follower. I’d occasionally be chastised for seeming too passive, or criticized for failing to take initiative, but years of conditioning kept me from voicing disagreement or making my own decisions in almost all cases. After all, what did I know that grownups did not? Who was I to request accommodations that made sense to me when someone who earned a lot of money and used plenty of high-level language felt differently? How could I ever provide insight about my own learning style when someone with decades of experience knew best? I carried on in this way for far too long, wanting to take the wheel but convinced I’d cause a wreck. Systematic rejection of my ideas and insights bolstered the illusion. By the time I left grade school to start my postsecondary adventure, I had very little idea that my rights would constantly be challenged, or that I had disability-specific rights at all.

In university, I soon figured out that even though I had no foundation to build on, I’d have to learn how to be my own advocate, and learn it quickly. My life and education were in my own hands, and those hands were more capable than many had let me believe. With ample coaching and encouragement from newly-discovered disabled friends, I engaged in the controversial art of speaking up. I practised saying “no,” or “yes, but not that way,” or “please Don’t grab me,” or “I want to try this instead.” When roadblocks were put in my path, I didn’t docilely accept them as immovable parts of my reality. Sometimes, I was even a little bit firm. I worked to let go of “I’m sorry, that’s probably silly” and “What do I know?” In place of those familiar crutches, I paid attention to what worked for me, and asked for it. When charm failed, which wasn’t often, I used blunt logic, and usually won. It was a novel and exhilarating way to live, though it came at a cost. Since acquiring advocacy skills, my life has never been as calm and peaceful as it once was. Taking control of your own life is exhausting business.

Living in a more tolerant and accessible world doesn’t mean everyone can sit back, relax, and forget how to take ownership of their lives. If anything, widespread complacency about our supposedly-civilized society means parents need to be even more diligent about instilling advocacy skills in all children, not just disabled ones, early and often. I’m not suggesting that children should be taught to despise authority or behave disruptively for the sake of it, but they should be as prepared as possible for the ignorance, bigotry, and exclusion they will inevitably face. Adults are not always right, and it’s neither healthy nor safe to teach kids otherwise.

Whether you’re a parent of a disabled child or a newly-disabled adult, don’t ignore the limitations of a life without solid advocacy—a life far more limiting than a disability could ever be. Be mindful that third-party advocacy will never match the advocacy you can do for yourself. Value the insight and experiences of experts, but be open to customized solutions. Seek advice from the disability community, but remember that conventional wisdom is not without merit. Recognize that not every problem is a disability problem; some of them are just ordinary problems that can be solved in ordinary ways. Emphasize the powers of courtesy and respect, but never underestimate well-harnessed anger. Acknowledge social hierarchy, but be aware that hierarchy is commonly abused.

Parents may resist teaching advocacy skills, and I have the greatest sympathy with them. Advocacy is frightening, and frequently disappointing. It is delicate, thankless, much-maligned work, especially when it’s done by young people. It will not always produce the hoped-for results, and it’s rarely much fun. Understand that advocacy is tough to cultivate, and likely to inspire nasty pushback from people your child loves and trusts. Be ready to deal with the possibility that your child’s advocacy will sometimes be directed at you, and that you won’t like how it feels. Know that you will need to respect their advocacy, even if it hurts or upsets you. Accept that you are not exempt. Shudder at these harsh truths, and teach it anyway.

Advocacy skills have guaranteed that my education was useful and comprehensive. They prevented me from being barred from services I required. They help me be productive and successful. Advocacy is the cornerstone of every fruitful thing I have ever done for my schooling, my career, and my relationships. It keeps me on my feet when the wind is doing its best to knock me over, even and especially when that wind is coming from an unexpected direction.

Before you worry too much about signatures and scissors and the exact method of removing bread from a toaster, remember that A is for advocacy. Start there, and everything else should follow.